Friday, October 14, 2016

PREPARING THE GHOST, sadly not a traveler's guide to the Bardo

PREPARING THE GHOST: An Essay Concerning the Giant Squid and Its First Photographer

A Liveright Book
$22.95 hardcover, available now

Rating: 1* of five

The Publisher Says: Moses Harvey was the eccentric Newfoundland reverend and amateur naturalist who first photographed the near-mythic giant squid in 1874, draping it over a shower curtain rod to display its magnitude. In Preparing the Ghost, what begins as Moses's story becomes much more, as fellow squid-enthusiast Matthew Gavin Frank boldly winds his narrative tentacles around history, creative nonfiction, science, memoir, and meditations about the interrelated nature of them all. In a full-hearted, lyrical style reminiscent of Geoff Dyer, Frank weaves in playful forays about his research trip to Moses's Newfoundland home, Frank's own childhood and family history, and a catalog of bizarre facts and lists that recall Melville's story of obsession with another deep-sea dwelling leviathan. Though Frank is armed with impressive research, what he can't know about Harvey he fictionalizes, quite explicitly, as a way of both illuminating the scene and exploring his central theme: the big, beautiful human impulse to obsess.

My Review: This writer is clearly obsessive, all right. Obsessive to the point of causing me to put this book down for long stretches at a time: From 2014 to 2016, I've averaged 90 pages a year, and was hard put to make my annual quota in each of those years:
Confusing the air overhead were bald eagles who could have been fish hawks, osprey who could have been sparrows. Turrswho could have been murrs. There was a pigeon who could have been a Greenland falcon, a kingfisher who could have been a snowy owl, a Paradise flycatcher who could have been a Downy woodpecker, a chimney swallow who could have been a robin, a blackbird who could have been a grosbeak, a raven who could have been a jay, a square cloud that could have been a circle, thunder that could have been the sea, orange that could have been pink, and the heavens that could have been the hells.
This example takes place in this year's reading, but I promise you it's not unique in any portion of the book. If I cared more, I'd paste some illustrations of the birds linked by the couldabeens, but I trust that you're smart and educated enough to see the unlikelihood of any of these being literal possibilities...raven? jay? the fuck?...and therefore aware of their metaphorical significance.

If so, please leave a comment explaining it to me. I don't get it. I also don't care anymore, but it would be mildly interesting to hear someone try to make value out of this shiny brummagem pointlessness.

This appears to be Frank's sixth published book. That is impressive indeed. These days it's astounding when an author gets six chances at the brass ring. Frank's talents are praised by luminaries like Simon Winchester, Matt Bell, Lidia Yuknavitch...people whose work I've read and enjoyed...and I cannot fathom (see what I did there? Huh? Get it, "fathom" in the understand sense playing on "fathom" the nautical measurement of depth referring to the Giant Squid's benthic (!) abode? Am I a clever boots or am I a clever boots?) why.
"From that corpse-like embrace there is no escape."
Harvey's prose here makes it unclear as to whether the giant squid grabbed the men and flung them across the boat, or if the men themselves, out of some primitive fear launched their own bodies across the boat to escape the squid's "embrace," or if the men were telling "stories in order to live," or if I am.
The reference is to “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” written by the mainstream's counterculture biggie Joan Didion in her collection of essays attempting to make some kind of sense of that confused, violent, revolutionary instant between 1966 and 1970, The White Album, itself titled after the contemporaneous major cultural event that was the release of the Beatles' final group album of the same name. I agree with Didion's assertion. I am utterly out of sympathy with Frank's use of it.

Anyway, the hardcover's very pretty with a handsomely designed text set in an agreeably readable yet still old-fashioned type that has some extra-spiffy question marks. And a damned good thing, that, because this text is liberally peppered with questions from the author to Clio, muse of history, to his sources, to dead ancestors, even to the reader.

None of them helped me answer my own questions: Why? Why do I possess this book, did someone give it to me (and if so I don't want you to 'fess up because We Will Have Words), why in heaven's name did I spend parts of three years finishing it?

Deep mysteries indeed. (See? See? I did it again! Oh, I just slay me!)

Thursday, October 13, 2016

OCTOPUS!, an interesting read about a fascinating creature

OCTOPUS!: The Most Mysterious Creature in the Sea

Current Books
$27.95 hardcover, available 31 October 2013

Rating: 3.75* of five

I received an ARC from Current Books for review, but I don't remember why.

The Publisher Says: We eat, study, copy, and idealize the octopus. Yet this strange creature still eludes our understanding. With eight arms, three hearts, camouflaging skin, and a disarmingly intelligent look behind its eyes, it appears utterly alien. But octopuses have been captivating humans for as long as we’ve been catching them. Cultures have created octopus-centric creation myths, art, and, of course, cuisine. For all of our ancient fascination and modern research, however, we still haven’t been able to get a firm grasp on these slippery beasts.

Now journalist Katherine Harmon Courage dives into the fascinating underwater world of these mysterious cephalopods. From her transatlantic adventures to Spain and Greece, expeditions in the Caribbean and back to Brooklyn, she invites readers to experience the scientific discoveries, deep cultural ties, and delicious meals connected to the octopus.

Courage deftly interweaves personal narrative with interviews with leading octopus experts. She provides an entertaining yet informative romp through the world of these infinitely interesting creatures.

My Review: Anyone who's paid me the slightest bit of attention over the years knows I'm a fan of Tentacled Americans. They're delicious. They're delightfully ookie. They're probably the closest things I'll ever have to soul mates: They don't like their own kind, regard other species as prey or enemies, and possess a deeply misunderstood intelligence.

All I lack is six more arms.

And now Katherine Harmon, a writer for Scientific American who appears to have married into the coolest last name ever, writes a Mary Roach-esque monograph on the 'pus! Oh frabjous day callooh callay! I dived (!) into the book the instant the mailman shoved it into the door-slot.

What a dive that was. I landed in the sea-water off Vigo, Galicia, with the seasick Harmon Courage (love that new name!), thinking about the *a*maz*ing* octopus preparations prevalent in the region. The trip to Greece's Octotropolis Gythio was a drool-inducing litany of same-ol' same-ol' octopus preparation: wail on the dead body on the ever-present beach rocks, hurry home and boil it then saute the tentacles in olive oil and then make a tasty accompanying sauce. You can not go wrong doing this. It is never-fail deliciousness, with the added bonus of being nutritious and heart-healthy.

I'm drooling. Pardon me, need to clean the keyboard.

So for sixty pages, I existed in a haze of hunger and longing for some fresh octopus instead of the canned smoked stuff from Vigo. Page sixty-one began the lessons, or as a pal of mine says, "the eat-your-spinach part."

Fortunately, I enjoy "eating my spinach" and learning about stuff. The only television I'm really interested in is informational/educational stuff...if I'm going to do something I don't enjoy (sit still in front of a screen and stare fixedly), I'm at least going to get something memorable out of I trotted happily along in Harmon Courage's wake as she chatted up the scientists who study these fascinating creatures. The locations she gets herself sent to are anathema to me, being largely warm-water beachy places, locales I'd pay good money never to have to visit. But the scientists are opening an immense realm of knowledge by living and working there, and no one's making me do it, so here I sit in air-conditioned splendor reading about the fascinating conclusions from this research.

Modern life, for a first-worlder, is excellent.

Octopus skin is near-miraculous in its mimetic ability. Octopus brains are only barely beginning to be studied but are already causes for fascinating discoveries. Octopus bodies are marvels of efficiency, and inspiring research into imitative robotic design.

Wondrous stuff, and that's not even half of the scientific amazement. How does a delicious creature without a shell avoid being din-din for every hungry thing in the sea? We've all heard about the ink-squirting defense, we've all heard of the prodigies of camouflage, but who knew that the wriggly ones could emit a *sound* that distracts vibration-sensitive predators? How? From WHERE?! Still being studied, stay tuned....

All of the above is my yodel of praise and my warble of enticement for you to dash out and buy a copy of this informative, enjoyable book. But the attentive reader will note that my rating is under four stars, while my enthusiasm is (I hope) evident. My rating might then seem ungenerous.

I feel bad about it, but I have to be a little ungenerous. The first sixty pages, with recipes and culinary enticements, do not fit comfortably with the science and research bits in the second part. The transition is handled as smoothly as it can be, but still isn't comfortable, because the nature of the book changes completely at that point. Harmon Courage's amusing, light touch doesn't change. She has a bit less to work with in humor terms. Not to say that, all of a sudden, we're in a textbook. It's simply a change from chatty, dinner-table food discussion, to after-dinner talk with slides and charts. Both are pleasurable, but in very different ways.

I want to be clear: This book gave me a lot of pleasure to read. I immersed myself in the lore and the science and the witty banter like they were a warm, salty bath, easing my literary aches and pains from reading so much forgettable snack-food in search of a good reader's meal. I got what I wanted from this read, and I suspect that any fan of light, amusing, informative reads will as well.

But like an octopus, I'm sensitive to the subtle shifts in my natural medium. Octopus blood is copper-based, which is why the darlings bleed blue. It's a less robust base for oxygen transmission than mammailan iron, and renders the octopus very vulnerable to changes in the ocean's acidity...too far outside its comfort zone, and the octopus dies. The climate change issues we've wished on the world include acidifying oceans.

The problem isn't a disaster, like the mismatch within the book isn't a disaster. But it's there, and it's something that needs mentioning, so that it might be cured for the future.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

IN THE JAPANESE GARDEN, a beautiful object about a beautiful subject

ELIZABETH BIBB (photos by Michael Yamashita)

out of print; available at all online booksellers

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Celebrates the elegant 1,300-year-old art form of Japanese gardening, providing gardeners with the basic concepts for including aspects of the Japanese garden in their own landscape plans.

My Review: This book was such a joy to find, to buy, to has been a perfect experience. It's the Fulcrum Publishing edition in paperback of a book done by Starwood in 1991. As it's a paperback, my local Salvation Armani charged me 49 cents for it. It's in *perfect* condition. Rapture!

Then there is the gorgeousness of the book...photographs that are almost lit from within, they are so lovely. The printing job is adequate, but a little heavy on the cyan, making all the blues intense but the greens a little squishy. Very, very small quibble.

Above all else, though, is the subject matter...the gardens...the aesthetic of accepting nature's gifts of color, shape, and form, and designing the living landscape to make every angle and vista a reflection of this aesthetic, inviting meditation on the nature of life's seasons and the seasons of life...well. It is a restorative draught for my wearied, nibbled-at soul.

The Shinto spirituality of the gardens is not neglected in Ms. Bibb's essays on the gardens and their various histories. It is telling that the origins of this most Japanese-identified of landscaping modalities is a direct lift by the ancient Japanese from Chinese culture's gardening traditions. The borrowing went on until the 18th century, in fact, with the Ming/Qing garden trend that emphasized greenery and stonery at the expense of Western gardening's obsession with blooming things. It is one reason I so love Japanese gardens: they are not awash in messy, purposeless FLOWERFLOWERFLOWER plant FLOWERFLOWERFLOWER stuff.

I would recommend this book to anyone who feels hemmed in, pecked at, torn, or simply needs a respite from daily life. The book is presently out of print, but copies are well worth searching up!

Monday, September 26, 2016

GOD'S LITTLE ACRE, a Banned Books Week sale from Open Road Media


Open Road Media
$1.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 3.75* of five

The University of Georgia Says: Like Tobacco Road, this novel chronicles the final decline of a poor white family in rural Georgia. Exhorted by their patriarch Ty Ty, the Waldens ruin their land by digging it up in search of gold. Complex sexual entanglements and betrayals lead to a murder within the family that completes its dissolution. Juxtaposed against the Waldens' obsessive search is the story of Ty Ty's son-in-law, a cotton mill worker in a nearby town who is killed during a strike.First published in 1933, God's Little Acre was censured by the Georgia Literary Commission, banned in Boston, and once led the all-time best-seller list, with more than ten million copies in print. (This is the edition I read in 2012, which has a foreword by Lewis Nordan that I consider very important to read.)

Open Road Media Says: Caldwell’s blockbuster bestseller: In the Depression-era Deep South, destitute farmer Ty Ty Walden struggles to raise a family on his own

Single father and poor Southern farmer Ty Ty Walden has a plan to save his farm and his family: He will tear his fields apart until he finds gold. While Ty Ty obsesses over his fool’s quest, his sons and daughters search in vain for their own dreams of instant happiness—whether from money, violence, or sex.

God’s Little Acre is a classic dark comedy, a satire that lampoons a broken South while holding a light to the toll that poverty takes on the hopes and dreams of the poor themselves.

This ebook features an illustrated biography of Erskine Caldwell including rare photos and never-before-seen documents courtesy of the Dartmouth College Library.


My Review: First published in 1933, when the author was a mere slip of a thirty-year-old, this novel starts in a hole and keeps digging deeper and deeper. Literally, not metaphorically. Well, literally AND metaphorically.

Ty Ty and his sons are poor white Southern Americans in the grimmest economic times of the 20th century. There was revolution brewing because of the depth of the economic crisis, and the complete absence of any safety net for anyone at all. Ty Ty and his boys, like modern-day conservatives, are digging for gold in their unpromising Georgia home's unyielding land, and finding lots of dirt and not much else. The womenfolk are trying to keep food on the table and as many rapists as possible outside. The ones at home, well, we all have our crosses to bear, don't we?

Since the land's being dug up for gold instead of farmed for food, the boys go off to work in the textile mills. Yes Virginia, there once was a textile industry in the USA. Now it's all in Pakistan, where a couple dollars a month is a (barely) living wage. Mill owners naturally want to keep their costs down to maximize profits, and families are going hungry to make sure the rich get richer (is this sounding familiar?), until the unions come to town. With predictable results.

There's death, there's misery, there's hard work followed by failure, there's more misery, the end.

And what an end! What a beautiful piece of writing this is, and how very grim the picture it paints in its simple shapes and clear colors. There is nothing unclear or muddy about the book, except the minds of the characters, and that is by the author's design.

The search for gold isn't as stupid as it sounds. The Georgia north was Cherokee country until white folks found gold in them thar hills and booted the native inhabitants off the land. In the novel, some few flakes are found, but never enough to do what Ty Ty wants, which is free him and his family from want and dependence on others. It works well as a metaphor for the frayed and threadbare Murrikin dream, too: Keep working keep working keep working and the rewards will (not) come! Or if they come, at what cost, and ultimately to what end?

The title, God's Little Acre, refers to Ty Ty's gift of one acre of his farmland to God to support the church. But because Ty Ty wants gold for himself and his family, he moves the location of the acre at will, so he'll be sure not to give his gold away. Not so unfamiliar here, either, is it?

Murder, betrayal, lust, rage, and that's all before we get to the workplace! Is it any wonder this book was called obscene by the forces of reaction? It *was* obscene! The horrible exploitive relationships in every single nook and cranny of the world the characters inhabit is obscene. The dreadful ignorance, the grinding and maliciously intentional poverty, all of it obscene!

Sadly, with the slow withering of liberalism, the story's outlines are rapidly recrudescing in the modern Murrika being carved from the living flesh of the unwashed masses too drugged on the crack of an American Dream they will never, ever attain by Lotto or hard work or virtue rewarded. The horror is we've been here before, and a few brave and good men tried to steer us away from this hideous abyss. And here we are, back again.

Sick-making, isn't it? Read the book, and use it as a cautionary tale.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

ARE YOU AN ECHO? stuns with its poetical economy and perfect pitch

ARE YOU AN ECHO?: The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko
(editors and translators)
Chin Music Press

The Publisher Says: In early-1900s Japan, Misuzu Kaneko grows from precocious bookworm to instantly-beloved children’s poet. But her life ends prematurely, and Misuzu’s work is forgotten. Decades later her poems are rediscovered—just in time to touch a new generation devastated by the tsunami of 2011. This picture book features Misuzu’s life story plus a trove of her poetry in English and the original Japanese.


My Review: Whenever a package arrives from Chin Music Press, I know that everything else has to go to the Later pile. As always, I was *so* richly rewarded when I opened these covers.

This gorgeous and extremely touching sampler of Kaneko Misuzu's poetry is perfectly illustrated. It is introduced by a brief recounting of Kaneko's unhappy life. While I would most definitely want my grandkids to read the poetry, I'd want to read Kaneko's story to them, and make sure I was fully present to gauge their need for explanation and/or comfort as the tale unfolds.

Even if you have no kids, grandkids, nieces, nephews, or strange kids you can borrow, buy this beautiful object for your coffee table. You will be the coolest kid on the block.

Big Catch

At sunrise, glorious sunrise
it’s a big catch!
A big catch of sardines!

On the beach, it’s like a festival
but in the sea, they will hold funerals
for the tens of thousands dead.

Friday, September 23, 2016

YOKOHAMA YANKEE, the burden and blessing of Being Other in one of the world's most homogeneous societies

YOKOHAMA YANKEE: My Family's Five Generations as Outsiders in Japan

Chin Music Press
$16.95 trade paper, available now

The Publisher Says: Leslie Helm's decision to adopt Japanese children launches him on a personal journey through his family's 140 years in Japan, beginning with his great-grandfather, who worked as a military advisor in 1870 and defied custom to marry his Japanese mistress. The family's poignant experiences of love and war help Helm overcome his cynicism and embrace his Japanese and American heritage.

This is the first book to look at Japan across five generations, with perspective that is both from the inside and through foreign eyes. Helm draws on his great-grandfather's unpublished memoir and a wealth of primary source material to bring his family history to life.


My Review: It's the "to life" part of the book description that I want to discuss. How many of us have family secrets? Okay, silly of me to ask. How many of us wish we could spill the family secrets and get away with it? Helm decides to take a look back at the whole sweep of his German-Japanese-American family's riot of repression and dysfunction so as not to have to write Yet Another Adult Child of Alcoholic Father story. I don't like Helm's father Don, not because he's an alkie but because he's a mean drunk. Got no time for that. Me, I'm a happy drunk, I like to laugh and screw and do pep-u-uppo drugs while drinking. Still not someone who should engender and "raise" four kids as Helm senior did. Or didn't, exactly.

So Helm sets out to put the whole sad affair into a multigenerational context that stops this from being cringe- and yawn-worthy, going into detail about the life of his ancestors in Germany and Japan before and between the World Wars in a well-documented and quite vividly drawn way. It's here that the narrative launches itself into some very interesting territory, and here that the stars are earned. Once we get to Don and Barbara, I don't care anymore because we've heard it all a zillion times and nothing makes this iteration any more interesting than the others were. Leslie and his wife facing racism in Japan was fascinating to me; the sheer incomprehension of Japanese people as to why these weirdos would adopt *strangers* which is to say the children of people they aren't related to makes me a lot clearer on the reason Japan's such a strange place, so much duty and honor and ceremony and so little welcome for the other, the different.

I won't quibble with the odd absence of wartime tales and stories. It's a great deal like Memoirs of a Geisha in that way; a paragraph or two of musings and oh will you look at the time it's 1945! What is it that exerts such a very powerful repulsion on those who write about Japan, let alone the Japanese, when WWII comes up?

This trope, or rather tropelessness, aside, the book is an engrossing and edifying read, and a pleasure to look at, and a very entertaining way to spend a day or so. The photos throughout are well-chosen and the design accommodates them exactly as one wishes all publishers would require it to do. This being a Chin Music Press title, that statement could easily go without saying, but I enjoy saying it.

HURRICANE STORY, five-star art from painful ational tragedy


Broken Levee Books
$18.00 hardcover, available now

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: Hurricane Story is a spellbinding odyssey of exile, birth and return told in forty-six photographs and simple, understated prose. This first-person narrative told through dreamlike images of toys and dolls chronicles one couple’s evacuation from New Orleans ahead of the broken levees, the birth of their first child on the day that Katrina made landfall, and their eventual return to the city as a family. Shaw’s photographs, at turns humorous and haunting, contrast deftly with the prose.

This clothbound hardcover edition includes an introduction by Rob Walker, author of Letters From New Orleans and former “Consumed” columnist for The New York Times Magazine.

My Review: Very, very pregnant photographer, husband, dogs, and cats, all escape New Orleans barely ahead of Hurricane Katrina. Son is delivered, family is displaced, much of New Orleans is destroyed, to our lasting national shame, and family returns to rebuild and resume living in the place they love and call home. The story isn't new, and it's not the first time anyone anywhere has told it in this words-and-images fashion.

But no one else anywhere has Ms. Shaw's extraordinary and amazing eye; her terse prose style, so beautifully suited to both story and images; or her quite astounding luck in being published by this amazing press, Chin Music via its New Orleans-centered imprint Broken Levee Books.

The book itself is worthy of being purchased simply to put on your front room's most prominent table. It is gorgeous. Bound in real cloth (my dog is still sniffing it, she's never encountered real cloth binding before) which is printed (let me assure you that this technique is far from simple, and its failure rate is significant; the technical demands on the printer, the designer, and the person making the color separations are quite significant; and the aesthetic that demanded this *exactly*right* production is quite rarefied) with an eerie, atmospheric image of great subtlety, the object itself begins its acquaintance with you by offering an uneasy glimpse into the mind of its makers. This will not be a candy-coated, literal, easy-to-process exercise in the journalism of indignance.

Opening the book, one reads the perfectly serviceable prose of two brief essays, one by Rob Walker, a former New Orleanian, and one by Ms. Shaw. Now we are mise en scene (oh, the badness of the pun), and the next page-flip takes you to spread 01: "We left in the dark of night." That's all she says in words. The photo facing the page bears a moment of painful clarity, expressed in a simple image of a red toy truck's tailgate retreating down a highly textured, shining road. The dark world closing in claustrophobically around this single spot of life, vividly red, the beautiful shining cobblestone-like texture of the road, the smoothness of the chiaroscuro...well, I could wax rhapsodic until you beg for mercy, but I won't. No point. Has to be experienced.

The use of toys and models to create the photo story is delightful. If I see one more image of people on a roof waving at the news copter while their house gives way beneath them, I shall scream blue murder. I avoid picture books of 9/11 for the same reason: I can't bear it. I've seen it! I've seen it! Stop smacking me! I won't look! But Shaw doesn't smack me. She wallops me ten minutes after I've seen her images. Dolls, with their awful starey eyes, usually make me uneasy. They still do here, but they are meant to, and they are deployed in simple, uncontrived story-telling, not some absurd, doomed effort to be archly Commenting On Life. The documentary "Marwencol" has much the same effect on me, and the same affect on its medium, as Shaw's dolls do.

And I must mention one thing in particular: Shaw's son is represented here by the King Cake baby. It's a nice, quiet, unpretentious symbol of her son's heritage. To someone without New Orleans knowledge, it's invisible and unnecessary to appreciate the story; to someone who knows what the symbol is, it's poignant and fitting.

Love New Orleans or loathe it, care about personal stories or not, this beautiful object should be in your home if for no other reason than to demonstrate quietly that you have excellent aesthetic taste and a real love for the object we call book. And the best part? It's only $18.

Buy one. Tell me I'm wrong. I dare you.